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from the Guardian 21 March 2002

Honour for black war heroHonour at last for war hero ignored for being black

American 'Harlem Hellfighter' who fought off German attack single-handedly is finally awarded a medal

Oliver Burkeman in New York

Shortly after midnight on May 15 1918, an American soldier called Henry Johnson was on duty near the Allied-German frontline in France when he heard the sound of barbed wire being snipped in the darkness. Silence returned for a moment. Then it began raining grenades. Afterwards, Pte Johnson would rarely speak of his wartime experiences, but military historians agree on the essentials of what happened that night. Under sustained attack from between 15 and 20 Germans, Johnson - armed with one rifle, and then, when his ammunition ran out, with only a knife - fended them all off, killing many of them, and managed to rescue his sole companion on duty that night, Pte Needham Roberts, who had been seriously wounded. Johnson himself received 21 injuries in the attack.

The way Herman Johnson sees it, his father was a war hero - and would have been recognised as such long ago had he not been African-American. "It beats me why this country didn't do that," says Mr Johnson, an 85-year-old estate agent living in Kansas City. "There's something inside a human being when his country is in need of service. And my father just had that thing and he deserves the appropriate award." Instead, prevented by his injuries from returning to work as a railway porter in Albany, New York, Henry Johnson died in poverty in 1929, reportedly suffering from alcoholism.

More than 83 years later, and following a campaign of several years, the US Army has agreed to posthumously award Johnson the country's second-highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross. Now senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer have proposed legislation to enable Johnson to receive the ultimate recognition of his service, the Medal of Honour - and in doing so have focused fresh attention on a largely unrecognised episode in American military and racial history.

The 369th Regiment from New York - the "Harlem Hellfighters" - were not conscripts. They were black soldiers who chose to sign up, despite the US military's insistence that they would not be permitted to fight alongside white troops. Mostly low-paid labourers in Manhattan's service sector - waiters, doormen, messengers - they were sent to South Carolina, a particularly racist state even by the standards of the time, for rudimentary training using wooden sticks for guns. Eventually, the army - facing a manpower crisis on the European frontline - reluctantly allowed them to fight. To avoid breaching segregation rules, they had them placed under the command of the French.

"The French were horrified by the segregation, and by all these directives that came from the American high command instructing them not to praise the black troops, not to socialise with or speak to black officers outside of the line of duty," says Gail Buckley, author of American Patriots, a study of African-Americans in war. "The French command apparently ordered [General John] Pershing's directives to be burned."

Tribute to a hero
Henry Johnson's son Herman, pictured on the left, and New York governor George Pataki, honour his grave at Arlington Virginia
And so for a brief, extraordinary period, the black soldiers fought alongside the white French as equals, forging friendships that led some of the Americans to return to settle in Paris - and, incidentally, introducing Harlem jazz to the nightclubs of Montmartre. "One of the famous melodies of the day was called How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm Once They Have Seen Paree?," says John Howe, a former New York state legislator and military historian who has worked "pretty much full-time" on the Henry Johnson case for the last few years.

Johnson became the first American soldier of the war to be awarded France's highest honour, the Croix du Guerre. "The American report is too modest," a French general wrote of Johnson and his fellow soldier, Roberts. "As a result of oral information furnished me, it appears the blacks were extremely brave. This little combat does honour to all Americans!"

And the Hellfighters did return to something like a heroes' welcome. They had not been permitted to march in the farewell parade before their departure, but now they were at the helm of a tickertape parade that swept up Fifth Avenue into Harlem. And paying what looks today like a double-edged compliment, the Saturday Evening Post declared: "Hereafter, 'nigger' will merely be another way of spelling the word American."

But it was not to last. It was the summer of 1919, and the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. The Harlem Hellfighters received no official American honours except the standard Purple Heart - "just a recognition that he'd been wounded", says Herman Johnson. "In spite of what some people may think of black people, we've fought in every war this country's ever had... It's a classic example of racism in our country."

"For this American hero to be denied his due honours simply due to the colour of his skin is a tragic yet blatant reminder of the rampant racism that existed in this nation during the first world war," said New York governor George Pataki recently. "The time is now to right this eight decades-long injustice, and finally recognise the valour, patriotism and grit of a man who was both a great New Yorker and an exemplary American soldier."

Now, says John Howe, the Distinguished Service Cross "means the fable of Henry Johnson is no longer a fable. It's not the award he deserves, but it makes him an official part of American history. It makes him a real American hero. He's not just a legend any more."
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